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Earlier this month, during a homily at morning Mass, Pope Francis’ gift for succinct but vivid instruction was on full display: “I don’t know why, but there is a dark joy in gossiping,” he said. “We slip into gossip, making the object of our chatter merchandise to be bartered.”

“Dark joy” perfectly characterizes the action of gossip, the resulting sin, the objectification of another person, the turning of a human being into a thing, the tool by which we build an illusion of inclusion within a rather porous clique”porous because we are like sponges, absorbing molecules of spite at the coffee machine and releasing them, sometimes with malice, in the elevator. There is real joy in all of this. Our actions are intended to make us feel like we belong somewhere; we “fit in” among one group by virtue of the snickers and wagging tongues through which we exclude others.

We “fit in” at least until we step out of earshot and become the excluded other ourselves.

Humans have a natural need to belong, which is one of those double-edged swords: Wishing to be part of something beyond ourselves, we build societies and communities and then serve them. Paradoxically, though, within that largeness we also seek something smaller, and more intimate, something that brings a sense of exclusivity and appreciation. Ideally, we should find this within our families, but short of that”and we almost always fall short of ideals”we seek affirmation of our unique value through social means.

The less secure we are in our specialness, the greater our need for extra-familial belonging. The neediest among us seek to dwell among those preternaturally smooth sorts who seem ahead of the curve and impossible to surprise; they are always astride the zeitgeist as it ascends, and the first to slide from it before others even notice it has begun to wane. That takes a nimble awareness, a malleability for the sake of inclusion. One cannot grab on to the latest trending vine unless one is willing to release the last one; one cannot be forever at the forefront of thought unless one is willing to forget much that has passed, and shove aside inconvenient reminders.

Something like that has happened to the Catholic Church in America, at least as Russell Shaw analyzes it in American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America . Shaw argues that the present struggles of the Church to be who she is amid governmental mandates and the ascendant “state religion” of secular humanism are the legacy of Baltimore’s Cardinal James Gibbons and other early churchmen who found America to be so accommodating to religion as to warrant a reciprocal accommodation to nationalism.

Thus was born the notion of American Catholicism ”something broader, less provincial than the Irish-Catholic or German-Catholic or Italian-Catholic cultural models”Catholicism, fully assimilated into a new age and era; e pluribus unum , comfortable with new customs and ready to travel with them.

Shaw notes that for a long while, this made sense, and politically, economically, and socially it carried Catholics far. Yet the early Americanization of the Church, writes Shaw, “included not just (as is commonly said) the idea that American-style separation of church and state supplied a model for adoption by the Church everywhere, but also a subjective, individualistic approach to Church doctrine and discipline widely present among American Catholics now.”

That individualism was demonstrated last week when it became known that Pope Francis means to continue the correction and overseeing of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Reacting to the news, Sr. Mary Ann Hinsdale, a theologian at Boston College, wondered what Francis”himself a member of a religious order” understood “of religious in North America” where, apparently, the consecrated life is exceptional and lived differently than the religious life in the rest of the world. In fact, it is that sense of exceptionalism that brought the LCWR under scrutiny to begin with.

We saw something similar as the corrections of the English translations of the Mass were adopted over a year ago, when bringing the American Church into prayerful unity with the rest of the Catholic world (where “and with your spirit” had never been dropped) was an occasion for high drama and sad, heavy sighs among American Catholics in habitual tension with Rome.

There is an irony to all of this, in that often the very same people who decry American exceptionalism as a political conceit seem to embrace that conceit when it comes to American Catholicism. Writes Shaw:

As embodied in powerful churchmen [like Gibbons] . . . the Church in America had a God-given duty to show the rest of the Church, and especially her leadership in Rome, the way to the future as that path was then being marked out in the United States.

If the idea of religion as an entirely private matter”no longer welcome in the public square except as it validates public policy”seems like a new development, Shaw illustrates that its seeds were planted long ago and nurtured by a desire for inclusion within the prevailing culture.

He writes:

Catholics of the United States have been preoccupied too long with the wrong question: What kind of Catholics should they be”“American” or “Roman”? But Catholicism itself is a given, open to only limited and rather well-defined variations without becoming something else.

A better question . . . would be this: What kind of Americans do they want to be”assimilated creatures of the secular culture, or people of faith who seek . . . an identity grounded in the gospel, leading them to distinguish carefully between what’s acceptable and good in secular culture and what expresses secularist values in conflict with their faith?

On the very morning of this writing, Pope Francis, in a brief homily on the sheep’s gate, may have answered that question . In cautioning us not to barter away the faith in order to gain approval”so we may “fit in””he said, “Sometimes, we are tempted to be too much our own bosses and not humble children and servants of the Lord.”

Elizabeth Scalia is managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress . Her previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .

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